If you ever plan a trip to a small town in the English countryside called Greenville, there are a few things you ought to know. Greenville is famous for the rolling fields that surround it, the overriding sense of peace and tranquillity that fills the very streets, a love of community, a sense of pride in their reputation and a powerful, violent, hatred of journalists.
I had been aware of this for a while and had one or two unpleasant run ins with the town before, so I really had no excuse for finding myself standing on the platform of a gallows with a noose around my neck as the assembled townsfolk – from tiny, ancient Mrs McCurdles to the bellowing town pastor to the rotund form of Mayor Jamieson Oxley – bayed for my blood.
‘Look, before you hang me can I just say–’
‘You may not!’ Oxley cried over the crowd. ‘You have said more than enough in that filthy paper of yours!’
‘I have literally never once written about any of you,’ I said.
‘He’s trying to confuse us with big words!’ Mrs McCurdles shrieked. ‘Hang him now!’
Oxley, with a very smug and very scary smile, stepped up on to the platform. He gestured for silence and the volume of the caterwauling decreased slightly. I cast an eye over the mass of people in the square, looking for anyone who might take issue with what was about to happen. A rotten tomato flew past my head.
‘Now, I think it’s safe to say that we’ve all waited for this day for a very long time,’ Oxley said. ‘When I asked my children what they wanted for Christmas they said it was to see Boone Shepard hang.’
‘That is profoundly morbid.’
‘Be silent Shepard! Anyway, today it appears that Christmas has come early. Today Shepard will experience a short drop and a sudden stop, resulting in his death from either a broken neck or prolonged suffocation. Personally I would prefer–’
Thankfully I was never to find out whatever grim preference the Mayor had, because that was the moment that a loud, piercing whistle silenced the mob, turning all their heads as they tried to see where it had come from.
The source was a tall, thin man on horseback, riding towards the gallows through the crowd, who parted before him. He was wearing a wide brimmed hat and his craggy face was adorned with a huge, droopy grey moustache that matched his long hair. Reaching the front of the massed townsfolk, he snatched the hat from his head and addressed Oxley.
‘Howdy there mayor,’ he said in his thick Texan accent. ‘I am awful sorry to be interrupting your hanging and all, but I’m afraid I must be calling it to a halt.’
Oxley looked outraged. ‘You’ll do no such thing!’
‘I have in my hand a warrant for the arrest of Mr Shepard,’ he said, waving several sheets of paper that I had not noticed previously.
Oxley pointed to the short, dumpy local policeman who stood at the foot of the gallows. In response, the policeman addressed the newcomer; ‘I think you’ll find we have the same here.’
‘On what charge?’ the man on horseback asked.
‘Meddling,’ Oxley said before the policeman could.
‘Meddling,’ the man on horseback repeated.
‘The whole thing is about as stupid as it sounds,’ I said.
‘Another crime for your lengthening list, journalist!’ Oxley roared. ‘How dare you call us stupid!’
‘Daring to say things that are true is my job,’ I said.
‘And your job is why you’re going to die!’
I looked to the man on horseback. ‘Well? Am I?’
‘Not here or now,’ he said. ‘I’m from over at Green Meadow, where you’ve been charged with something far dastardlier.’
‘This ought to be good,’ I muttered.
‘I’d suggest my more delicate listeners cover their ears,’ the Texan said. ‘Because while the charge of meddling is a very serious one, I’m sorry to say that over in Green Meadow, Boone Shepard has committed prying.’
There were some gasps from the audience, followed by several thumps as fainting ensued. A volley of rocks flew past my head, followed by some outraged cries of ‘hang him now!’
‘Well…’ Oxley scratched his head. ‘As much as this makes me all the more determined to see him dead, the man is right. This is Green Meadow’s jurisdiction.’
I wanted to point out how little sense that made but I also did not want to point out something that might result in them hanging me after all, so I said nothing.
‘Let him go,’ Oxley growled. ‘On one condition.’ He looked at the Texan. ‘I want him dead within the day.’
‘Considering the magnitude of his crime, that’s pretty much certain.’
The noose was removed from my neck. A little suspicious at the circumstances, I walked back down the wooden stairs, through the crowd of people staring daggers at me, past Mrs McCurdles’ rude hand gesture and up to the man on horseback. He jerked his head behind him and, feeling more than a little awkward, I clambered up and on behind my would-be apprehender. Then, with one last attempt at a smile towards the very downcast looking Oxley, we were off, galloping away from the crowd and through the empty streets. After barely a minute the horse was pulled to a halt.
‘Get off,’ Avery said.
‘Avery, as much as I appreciate the rescue I’m not doing that,’ I replied. ‘You owed me for saving you from that gang of mimes in Manchester last month and that debt isn’t paid until I leave this town in one piece.’
‘The debt still stands.’ Avery Arbogast, bank robber and irritant extraordinaire, swung a leg over the horse’s head and slid off. ‘This is pure business.’
‘Business?’ I said. ‘Avery, this is life or death and in case you weren’t aware, I quite like the former and am somewhat opposed to the latter.’
‘Then we’d better get to work fast,’ he said. ‘Before anyone sees us.’
For a moment I considered riding the horse away myself but the moment the thought hit me Avery’s revolver was in his hand and aimed at me along with his winning grin.
‘Or before you do something ill advised,’ he said.
Considering that label could be applied to just about everything I had ever done and I was still alive, I wasn’t completely convinced. But having just escaped almost certain death, I wasn’t exactly keen to take the risk. I got off the horse.
The moment I was down Avery grabbed me by the arm and dragged me into the dark space between two houses. We both crouched to avoid being seen through any of the windows.
‘What is this?’ I hissed. ‘What do you want?’
‘I need your help,’ he said.
‘With an audacious robbery.’ He gave me what would have been a convincing sincere look if he wasn’t still holding his gun or talking about theft. ‘Boone, do you know why this town hates journalists?’
I had a theory about that, a lengthy theory involving a hunt for a werewolf, a musket and an act of unimaginable evil, but I also had never quite found the proof I needed to accept that as fact. ‘Why?’ I asked.
‘Because journalists tell stories,’ he said. ‘And some people got stories they don’t ever want told.’
I frowned. ‘Which people?’
‘How many times has Greenville tried to kill you?’
‘This was the third.’
‘And who is always leading the charge?’
That wasn’t entirely straightforward; the whole town seemed pretty hellbent on bringing my career to a swift and violent end, but if I had to guess…
‘The mayor,’ I said.
‘Mayor Jamieson Oxley.’ Avery nodded. ‘Not too suspicious, right? Just your average small town mayor.’
‘Maybe one with a slightly greater thirst for blood than usual, but whatever.’
‘Whatever indeed.’ Avery leant forward. ‘Think about it Boone. The man is violent and the man wants anyone who meddles or pries dead. The man has a secret.’
No matter how much I wanted to be back on that horse and galloping far away, I couldn’t deny my curiosity. ‘What secret?’
‘The secret that he’s no small town mayor.’ Avery bared his teeth. ‘He’s a criminal and a very rich one to boot. Oh sure, he’s disguised himself well and gotten very good at driving away anyone who might come close to revealing the truth, but he can’t hide from the people who know all about him.’
‘So what do you want?’ I said. ‘To bring him to justice?’
Avery laughed loudly enough to defeat the whole purpose of our hiding in the first place. ‘Boone, don’t be a fool. I want his money.’
‘And what, you think I’ll help you steal it?’
‘If you want to leave Greenville alive, you will. Besides, think. He ain’t no saint. He’s as bad a man as you’ve ever come across. Hell, he’s tried to off you three times. What’s it to you if his wallet is a little lighter tomorrow?’
‘Yours being a little heavier is what it is to me,’ I said. ‘Avery, I’m not a criminal.’
‘And this ain’t a crime,’ he said. ‘Is it wrong to rob from a robber?’
‘Why do you need me?’
‘Because I need someone who knows Greenville,’ he said. ‘Also if I’m not much mistaken, the amount of cash this man has verges on the astronomical. I need help carrying it all. You get ten percent, of course.’
‘I don’t want any percent!’ I exclaimed. ‘I want nothing to do with this.’
‘I’ve cased his house,’ Avery said. ‘I know he’s not keeping it there. But he doesn’t leave the town. So where in Greenville is safe? Where would none of the townsfolk ever go?’
‘Well the library, obviously,’ I said. ‘But that’s not the point. Avery, I was called into town to cover a story about the alleged theft of someone’s prize manatee. I’m not helping your heist.’
‘You already have,’ he said. ‘Come on Boone. The library it is.’
I opened my mouth to reply but his devious smile was back as his gun was gesturing and within seconds we had left the safety of the dark gap, walked past his horse and were making our way up the street towards where the dusty and almost abandoned Greenville library was. The bulk of the town had gathered for my ‘hanging’ and it seemed the majority of them were yet to make their way back home; the streets remained quiet. Even so, it was hard not to be on edge at every little sound we heard as we neared the most neglected part of the little town.
The Greenville Library might have been a nice building, had it been in regular use since its construction, which appeared to have been at least a couple of hundred years ago. In stark contrast to the thatched cottages that made up the town it was a stately, stone building adorned with carvings and statues that were coated in too much moss to be impressive.
We moved into the shadow of a large nearby house, watching the building together.
‘How do we get in?’ Avery asked.
‘We could rappel in through the skylight?’
‘That means getting on to the roof somehow. What if we steal a truck and run it through the entrance?’
‘The building is stone. The only thing that’s breaking in that scenario is us. What if we try to find some loose brickwork and use a spoon to work way the mortar around it?’
‘We’d be too vulnerable to too long. What if we steal a train and–’
‘We could just walk in the front door,’ I suggested.
‘I suppose we could,’ Avery said. ‘Alright, you first.’
I rolled my eyes but didn’t bother arguing. The sooner this was done the better. Casting a quick glance up and down the street to make sure we were still alone, I hurried toward the front door of the building, Avery close behind. Reaching it, I brushed some dust off the window and peered through. No signs of life. That was a good start. I pushed the door open and stepped inside.
The Greenville Library smelt of mothballs, rot and disuse, but no matter the circumstances it’s hard not to find a big room full of books a little comforting. I took in the towering shelves, the dark shadows between them, the abandoned front desk and had to remind myself I was here to help steal a large sum of money from a bad man.
‘Where do we look?’ Avery asked.
In answer, I walked over to the nearest shelf and pulled out a book, displacing a cloud of dust as I did. Coughing, I opened it and watched in surprise as several notes fell out.
‘That’s, uh, that’s money,’ I said.
‘It’s in the books,’ Avery’s eyes were practically glowing in the dim light. ‘Alright, let’s get to work.’
‘You can,’ I said as Avery hurried past me between two shelves and began pulling out heavy volumes. ‘I’ve got to find that manatee.’
‘There is no manatee,’ he said absently.
‘I called the paper and gave them that tip to get you here.’ Avery wasn’t looking at me as he rifled through the books, filling his pockets with pounds as he did. ‘I knew you wouldn’t come near Greenville of your own accord and you sure weren’t gonna help me steal the mayor’s money if I asked.’
I stared at Avery, unsure how to convey my mingled anger and confusion. ‘The criminal mayor,’ I said.
‘Is that what the American knave told you?’
I turned at the voice from behind me. Standing at the front door of the library was Mayor Jamieson Oxley, his bulk somehow more threatening in the semi-darkness. On one side of him was the town pastor, dressed in black and holding his favourite crossbow, while on the other stood John the friendly baker and his friendly battle-axe.
‘To be fair, it’s not much of a stretch,’ Avery said.
‘Wait, what?’ I looked back at him then realised I should probably keep my eyes on the mayor. ‘But the money…’
‘I’m rich,’ he shrugged. ‘Have to keep it somewhere.’
‘Don’t get too hung up on it Boone,’ Avery said. ‘He did try to hang you.’
‘I’m about to succeed, I feel,’ he said. ‘Although this time we’ll celebrate the demise of two meddling mischief makers.’
I heard the click of a gun. The pastor lifted his crossbow.
I turned and ran back past Avery as he opened fire and the crossbow bolt shot over my head, into the dark depths of the library. More gunshots sounded as I reached the end of the row and pulled a u-turn into the next. I heard a bellow from John the friendly baker then a thud and the nearest shelf of books started tilting towards me. I ran faster, emerging from this row just as the shelf hit the next one which fell in turn. Books and banknotes flew into the air. I turned another corner and ran up another row, reaching the end just as it fell and a crossbow bolt flew from between the tumbling books past my face, thudding into the next shelf. I ducked beneath it and was out as the cascade of bookshelves continued.
I had reached the front door. I looked behind me. There was no sign of anyone else; all I saw were a bunch of toppled shelves and piles of books. I could hear some groaning and yelling amongst it all, then another gunshot. That was it. I pushed through the door and ran, out into daylight, past the smattering of confused villagers, up the road until I reached Avery’s horse. I pulled myself up into the saddle, gathered the reigns and prepared to take myself far, far away from Greenville.
But something stopped me.
I looked back in the direction of the library. I knew I was being stupid. I knew I would regret this. I told myself to ignore my instincts. Then I pulled the horse around, dug my heels in and took off at a gallop back towards the square where I had almost been hanged.
It was empty now; the whole town had either returned to their homes or followed the gunshots to the library, but the gallows were still there. I rode the horse up the stairs on to the wooden platform and, stretching out of my saddle, reached the top where rope was tied to wood. It took me several seconds to get it free before wheeling the horse around and, rope trailing behind me, galloping hard back towards the library.
I was met in the street by a crowd almost as large as the one who had gathered for my execution. They scattered as I barrelled through them, nearing the front of the library just as the door burst open and a bloodied, beaten and tired looking Avery Arbogast staggered out.
His foot was just coming down as I flicked the rope like a whip. It cracked forward and the noose landed below his foot just as it hit the ground. I didn’t wait to see if it had worked. I pulled the rope over my shoulder and drew the horse back around with a kick and a yell and we were off. I heard a loud, high pitched squawk behind me and took that as a good sign.
Nobody tried to stop us, but then, who would step in the way of a furiously galloping horse, the journalist on its back and the American man being dragged along behind them by the noose around his ankle?
I kept riding hard, eyes forward, teeth gritted until we had left Greenville, until town became fields and then I kept going until fields stretched from horizon to horizon. Then finally I pulled the horse to a halt and looked back.
There was no sign of Greenville, so all I had to look at was a very battered and shocked Avery, lying on the ground, breathing heavily and staring up at the sky. I got off the horse and walked over to him.
‘You okay?’ I said. ‘Wait, don’t answer that. I don’t care.’
Wincing, Avery sat up. ‘Figure I deserved that.’
‘You think?’ I said. ‘You almost got me killed, Avery. Why did you do that?’
Looking more than a little shaky, Avery got to his feet. ‘Well,’ he said. ‘If I had to guess, I would say it’s because that’s who I am. Who I’ve always been. I go for the big score, no matter what. Ain’t nothing I can do to change that.’
I opened my mouth to tell him exactly what I thought of that excuse, but he wasn’t finished.
‘In the same way that you are who you are.’ He shrugged. ‘I knew that worse came to worst you’d still try to save me. That ain’t a half bad insurance to have.’
I stared at him, unsure of what to say as he pulled the noose off his foot.
‘Although that wasn’t the way I’d hoped it would go,’ he said. ‘Might think twice before pulling something like that in future. Anyway.’ He smiled at me in a way that did not imply for a second he’d just been dragged a significant distance by a horse. ‘Thanks Boone Shepard. I owe you another one.’ With that, he limped back to his horse, struggled into the saddle then, with a final wave, was galloping off towards the slowly setting sun.
I looked after him, still wishing I’d said something more biting or decisive. But his words were still echoing in my head and the most surprising part was how little I suddenly felt bothered by what he had done.
If I had to guess, I would say it’s because that’s who I am. Who I’ve always been.
There was no more anger. I watched until Avery Arbogast was a speck on the orange horizon. I glanced back in the direction of Greenville. No sign of pursuit yet.
I shook my head, laughed and started to walk.